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Mr. Evans: I hope that neither of the post offices in the hon. Gentleman's constituency is being incentivised to close. I agree that the consultation must be carried out properly, not rigged. The Lancashire Evening Post reports that there will be a six-week consultation, and that

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that that is a problem, and that we must ensure that customers have the choice of collecting their benefits from the post office?

Mr. Hoyle: Of course the hon. Gentleman is correct. I intended to come on to that point and say that my hon. Friend the Minister may not be aware of the difficulties faced by people who wish to keep to the old system. It is true that the legislation provides the right of choice for them. But somewhere in the bowels of the administration it is made difficult for people not to go into the banking system. That is what worries me.

I do not believe there are many MPs who have not been approached by constituents—older pensioners—who say, "I don't want the new system. I want to stay with the old system." They fill in form after form, and as Members of Parliament, we get involved. It seems that somebody somewhere is blocking the system and not clearing the forms as quickly and effectively as they should. They are looking for a minor point on which to reject our constituents' requests. The Minister may not be aware of that. We need a thorough investigation to ensure that the process runs smoothly once people fill in the form, and that they do not have to go without the money they are entitled to for any length of time.

A further issue on which I appeal to the Minister concerns people who may not be able to get to the post office because of illness. Someone has to collect the money for them, and that is a worry if they are ill for four or five weeks. We need to recognise that as a genuine concern and see how we can improve the situation. We all deal with big problems relating to post offices, but we all recognise that sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses offer a superb service. The post office is the focal point of a community, urban or rural. It provides a service that we love and have enjoyed over many years. We want future generations to be able to enjoy the post office, as we have. I hope that the service can become more flexible and more creative, recognising that post offices should remain open and offer their services to the community.

We do not want people to look at a map and say, "Let's take these post offices out, because we think there are too many." That is wrong. They should examine the

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demographics of the area and the age profile of the people who live there. They should listen to the Member of Parliament and other local representatives in each constituency where closures are proposed. Please let us take that on board, and tell the Post Office that its ambitious plan to close so many post offices is unacceptable. Let us listen to the community and put the community interest first.

3.45 pm

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle) (LD): We have heard so much this afternoon, and I have spoken before on the matter in the Chamber, about the huge flaws in the network reinvention programme as it applies not just to my constituency but to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) and the hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey). Flawed information was given to us on 17 December— which some of us did not receive until 18 December—the process itself was flawed, decision making was flawed and secretive, and the sum total of all the work that was put in was that four post offices were closed. Today and this week, post offices are closing and elderly and disabled people are being left without access.

Of the respondents to our consultation, which we thought supported that of Post Office Ltd., 80 per cent. were over 55, and 40 per cent. had mobility problems. I was astonished at that figure. I expected it to be 10 or 15 per cent. I had no idea that it would be so high.

To add insult to injury, as I said in an intervention earlier, we ended up being told during the decision-making process that, because it was recognised that the process was flawed, it would be altered for the future. But despite letters to Postwatch, Post Office Ltd. and the Minister, I have been able to obtain nothing other than sympathy, which is lovely but does nothing about the real problem. The process for my constituency and others involved in the same period should have been halted. I requested that of the Minister and Post Office Ltd., and I made my final appeals last week before the closures took place, but I have had no substantive response from either on those last-minute appeals. Postcomm and Postwatch told me that neither of them had any powers to halt the process even though it is recognised that it was flawed from beginning to end.

The performance and innovation unit report, by which we are guided in the whole procedure, at chapter 8, page 2 on delivering objective 1, states that there should be convenient access for all to post offices—not just some of the population, but all. It states:

I highlight one of the post offices in my constituency that closed on Monday this week. The main receiving office is not on a bus route, the car park close to it is always full during daytime hours, and it is at the top of a steep hill. I do not understand how all the community can possibly have access to that receiving office.

It has become clear that the process is being driven not by the strategic overview that we had all expected, but by a wish to close as many sub-post offices as possible as quickly as possible. It has been a case of the devil take the hindmost. The deal offered to sub-postmasters and mistresses has been one that many have simply been unable to refuse. The Government made

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available £180 million for compensation. I do not argue with that. On average, £55,000 was paid out in the last quarter to December 2003 to individual sub-postmasters and mistresses. That is £38 million in one quarter of last year, and the figure is likely to be higher for the current quarter. What checks have been made on those payouts? Why is the payout based on takings six months before closure, when the closure information presented to Postwatch and others is based on takings including the past six months? Is that not an incentive to run down the business in the final six months?

How many of those sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses have owned their businesses for less than two to three years, having taken them on knowing that this process was in place? I am not suggesting that that is a factor in all cases, but I would like to think that the Government seek to ensure that taxpayers' money is spent on the purposes for which it was intended, and not simply used for handouts to close post offices that should be kept open because the sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress wants to go.

My experience of Postwatch has not been as good as that of Labour Members, and I suspect that there are variations between different parts of the country. We have held four public meetings in my constituency, which were attended by Postwatch representatives. My constituents want to know Postwatch's purpose. Why does the Postwatch representative in the north-west, who attended the public meetings, report to Postwatch in London rather than to Postwatch in the north-west? Who authorises him to make derogatory remarks about public campaigns, or did he think of that for himself? Whose side is he on?

Mrs. Anne Campbell: My experience of Postwatch has been extremely positive. Postwatch has done everything possible to help me to fight inappropriate post office closures in my area. In order to try to save a post office in my constituency, one case has been escalated up the ladder to the top of Postwatch. I cannot praise Postwatch highly enough, and I hope that the hon. Lady's experience is not replicated elsewhere.

Mrs. Calton: I am happy to acknowledge that my experience occurred in my area. It was not only my experience, but that of members of the public, who asked, "Why did Postwatch bother to come?" I understand that time is short and that the summing-up speeches must begin shortly.

I shall reiterate the health benefits of a vibrant post office network. It may seem a jump from this debate to health impacts, but the health of communities is a determinant of the health of individuals within those communities. Removing an important asset such as a post office has a huge impact on the health of a community. The other day, I heard that the best treatment for leg ulcers is to put three or four people with leg ulcers together to allow them to talk to each other, which makes them get better, along with the necessary medical work.

Elderly people should not be left alone in our communities, but they are. A huge percentage of the public spend most of each week alone, and visits to the

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post office and local shops make a big difference to their lives. The long-term cost to the community of post office closures will be huge. The PIU report states that "supporting vulnerable people" and

are important parts of what a post office has to offer.

I agree that there is an opportunity to reverse years of decline. In particular, it should be possible to offer post offices that open longer and that serve a broader customer base, but that is not the experience in my area, where there has been no attempt to combine retail with a post office to create a thriving local business. It could have been done, but it was not even tried. The question I have to ask is: where is the strategic vision? Those customers will not simply move from one place to another, mainly because they are not capable of doing so. If we turn post offices into banks, they compete with the banks—what about their customer base then? Network reinvention is destroying the customer base, tearing the heart out of communities, increasing car use and adding to social exclusion.

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